ATLANTA, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- The racially insensitive email that forced Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson to sell his controlling stake in the NBA franchise was discovered after comments made by general manager Danny Ferry led the NBA to investigate the team for signs of systematic or outright bigotry.
In June, while discussing the upcoming NBA free agency season, Ferry quoted a background report on an unknown player that included an an "offensive and racist" remark.
That comment triggered a fairly large-scale investigation to ensure the Hawks were not employing racists in a league still reeling from Donald Sterling.
"There were 19 people interviewed, 24,000 pieces of evidence looked at, and in that discovery -- that internal investigation -- this email that we released [Sunday] morning was found, from Bruce Levenson," Koonin explained to CNN's Martin Savidge.
"Bruce was confronted with this email from 2012, and he decided that instead of fighting it ... he thought it was best for the city, for the team, for his family, to walk away."
Discussing the franchise's slumping ticket sales in 2012, Levenson lamented the overwhelmingly black crowd who typically attended Hawks' games. Despite calling out southern whites for what he viewed as the racist assessment that the Philips Arena was in a bad part of town, Levenson goes into detail about racially charged changes he would like to see implemented with the stated goal of making racists feel more welcome at Atlanta Hawks games "if that's our [demographic]."
"When digging into why our season ticket base is so small, I was told it is because we can't get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season [tickets] and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. When I pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. Then I start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
— it's 70 pct black
— the cheerleaders are black
— the music is hip hop
— at the bars it's 90 pct black
— there are few fathers and sons at the games
— we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.
Then I start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. I never felt uncomfortable, but I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips yet in our 9 years, I don't know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.Advertisement
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while I don't care what the color of the artist is, I want the music to be music familiar to a 40-year-old white guy if that's our season tixs demo. I have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black ... My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 percent black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 percent still feels like 70 percent to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.
This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly I think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low."
Upon learning of the of the NBA's investigation into the Hawks, Levenson surrendered the email, admitted to writing it and volunteered to sell his stake in the team.
"I shared my thoughts on why our efforts to bridge Atlanta's racial sports divide seemed to be failing," Levenson said in a statement.
"In trying to address those issues, I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive. I trivialized our fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.Advertisement
If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be. I'm angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them."
"It was like walking into a funeral," Koonin described of a team meeting after the email became public.
"These are young men who wear our city's name and our logo on their chest. They play for a team, and they are supposed to be supported by their ownership. And ownership failed in supporting them."